A fiery Wyoming newspaper pursues the state's fat cats

  • Cover of Grassroots Advocate newsletter

  • PASSIONATE: John Jolley

    Dave Bonner photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

If you weren't around in 1970, when Tom Bell founded the scrappy High Country News in Lander, Wyo., you can catch a late 1990s reincarnation by reading the Grassroots Advocate, published by John Jolley out of Casper, Wyo.

Bell in the early 1970s was the scourge of then-Gov. Stan Hathaway and his strategy to mine, drill and fence Wyoming. Twenty-eight years later, Jolley haunts Gov. Jim Geringer and his administration. A sample is found in the August/September 1997 edition of the Advocate, which shows a front-page photo of the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction Judy Catchpole, smiling. The headline: "CATCHPOLE SMILES WHILE TAXPAYERS CRY."

The story begins, "Approximately 450,000 Wyoming taxpayers, 98,777 schoolchildren and 6,600 Wyoming ranchers (those ranchers who are not privileged to be protected by monopolistic, anti-competitive and/or wrongful practices and abuses of our State Land Office and the Land Board) were relieved of $31,546 of their money by a decision rendered on April 9, 1997, by Wyoming State Land Office Director James Magagna."

It's not a lead you would find in a "real" newspaper. First, it violates journalism's readability rules. Second, according to Dave Bonner, publisher of the weekly Powell Tribune, "Jolley says the things no one else will say."

Jolley's major campaign over his 30 months in the newspaper business has been to reform how Wyoming manages its state-owned lands. The retired 55-year-old Greybull native got started in 1996, by participating in a petition drive to stop the wholesale sell-off of state lands at bargain prices to insiders. In response to 12,000 signatures, Jolley says, the state land office adopted a moratorium, stopping the sale of 104,000 acres that had been nominated for sale in spring 1996. Last year, the Legislature tightened the rules governing the state land sales.

The Advocate still watchdogs the state land, but lately it has turned its attention to federal land trades. Jolley says he personally spent $12,000 appealing the Big Trails Land Exchange in the Big Horn Mountains near Ten Sleep, Wyo. Jolley convinced the Interior Board of Land Appeals to stay the Bureau of Land Management's attempt to make the 7,000-acre exchange. Here's how he describes the proposed exchange, under a headline that read: "Grassroots Advocate charged with causing train wreck':

"This special BLM train was not bound for glory, but its destination was to the land of corporate profits, to the coffers of the landbarons, to the cities of big game outfitters and the land of enchantment composed of "steal-of-a-deal-of-public-lands' individuals.

"Instead of proudly blowing its whistle loudly as is customary when a train embarks on its destination, the engineer on this BLM train intentionally and as silently as possible slithered out of the station like a weasel in the night." This last referred to BLM Area Manager Charles Wilkie's refusal to hold a public hearing even after being presented by a petition with 800 signatures.

In addition to what he spends on appeals, Jolley estimates each issue of the Advocate costs him $4,000 for printing and postage. But finances are looking up. "We broke even on this issue," which means he took in enough on the last issue to pay the $4,000 printing and postage for the current issue. He laughs at a question about "salaries' for him and publisher Mary L. Schneider Jolley. "There are no salaries."

Jolley is not an environmentalist. Until someone interested him in the state lands giveaway, he says, he didn't know state lands existed. "I'm not a Freeman. I'm not anti-government. I'm conservative - I'm trying to make government work."

Meanwhile, he's trapped.

"This is not what I want to do with my life. I'm not a qualified writer or reporter. And it isn't a crusade. I'm only doing it because no one else is doing it. Reporters for regular newspapers don't have the time to dig out information. I do, but it means that since I started this, I haven't seen my grandkids in Seattle."

That's because the former attorney, oil-well worker and small businessman spends much of his time digging into state and federal government files. The rest of his time is spent putting out the Advocate as if this were the 1950s, typing stories on an old Smith-Corona, having the copy set in a print shop, and then driving 200 miles from his Casper home to have it printed.

He collects mailing lists from sporting groups, state government, and voter registration files, then mails 5,500 to 10,000 copies, depending on his bank balance at the moment, in search of new subscribers. Predictably, the paper, with its heavy emphasis on type and information about the public land, appeals mainly to older Wyoming residents. It is not a demographics that attracts Polo or even L.L. Bean, but Jolley does have a few ads from small Wyoming advertisers.

The paper is rough in its typography and writing, but it is also passionate and to the point. Jolley says, "I'd say we're a year away from having a pretty decent paper. I'm learning to write."

But he won't even talk about economic efficiency. He won't get a computer, and he won't apply for a second class mailing permit - -too much paperwork' - or nonprofit status. "There are too many nonprofits in the world."

One result is a $36/year subscription price for six tabloid issues. But if you care about Wyoming's public land, the paper would be a bargain at 10 times the price. Call 307/472-2166, or write Grassroots Advocate, Box 2968, Mills, WY 82644. No e-mail address, of course, and don't bother searching the Web for a www.grassrootsadvocate.com.

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